Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Adventure at Pueblo Shé

Map of (some of) the ruins at Pueblo Shé. Nels Nelson, 1914 

Up the road apiece, past the Zorro Ranch and over the ridge into the Galisteo Basin, the vast acreage of the Singleton holdings goes on for miles and miles. The Singleton ranches have various names. I forget most of them, but all along the route north almost to the village of Galisteo, the red and white painted gates sport the Bar-S brand signifying yet more of the Singleton properties.

Up over a hill past the Anaya Ranch, and across the road from Tom Ford's 20,000+ acre Cerro Pelon Ranch, is a gate that is sometimes open -- say when a movie is being shot on the land (part of Hostiles was) or cattle are being driven, or once when I saw a cowboy hauling bales of hay for the horses.

June 2,  the gate was open and we turned in, waving at the dudes by the gate -- "Just follow the road" they said, a dirt track really, but not in bad shape despite the rain the day before. 

We were on our way to Pueblo Shé. The weather was distinctly cool and foggy and threatened more rain, but we didn't much care. It seemed like a good day to go exploring on forbidden land, this place now called San Cristobal Ranch, yet another of the Singleton family properties in New Mexico. They have ranches all over the west, and in the Galisteo Basin, big ranches are liable to host one or more Pueblo Indian ruins, and the ruins can be enormous. Pueblo Shé is one of the bigger ones.

We jounced along the dirt road around curves and up hills and down, past log cabin ruins that were used in the filming of Hostiles and maybe some other pictures, too. We kept going and going, close  to arroyos and stands of cholla and piñon pine until we came to a series of tents and lots of cars and cattle lowing in the distance. This was the place. We would be joining perhaps two hundred others going to the ruins in small groups led by volunteer archaeologists, each of whom had their take on where we were and what it meant in the vast eternal scheme of New Mexico's long habitation by its varied populations.

Our group was an early morning one, and we set out relatively promptly once everyone on the list was assembled. We were warned by our tour leader that the hike would be about two miles some of which would be fairly strenuous, but accommodation would be made for those who might be slower than others. We could expect to be out exploring for about two hours. We should be prepared for rain.

I looked around and it seemed to me pretty much all the dozen or so in our group were in their 70s and a few were even older. There was one young fellow, Paul D., who was one of three archaeologists in our group. He said he was with the City of Santa Fe, and he'd never been to Pueblo Shé before -- well, except for the previous Friday when the volunteers were taken around . None of the archaeologists had. Not even our tour leader, John W., had been there before last Friday. It was to be a new adventure to all of us. Access was so restricted that the ruins hadn't really been investigated or excavated for more than 100 years.

Ms. Ché and I had brought our walking sticks so the first part of our trek up hill from the tent encampment was... OK. The ground was rough and dotted with snake holes and cow-pies, but this was no great problem. We noticed right away pot sherds on the ground. Lots and lots of them. We climbed a slight rise and John W. explained it was one of the trash middens left by the peoples who had occupied Pueblo Shé, and he said that as far as anybody knew the site had been "de-populated" and abandoned sometime after 1500 but before the Spanish arrived (starting with Coronado in 1540). Why it was abandoned was a mystery, but several of the pueblos in the Galisteo Basin were abandoned about the same time, and a theory was that there was an extended drought, and the populations of abandoned pueblos migrated to other pueblos or areas where water remained accessible and available. Perhaps.

John also said that it wasn't entirely clear who had lived at Pueblo Shé. There were a number of different Native kin and language groups who lived in the Galisteo Basin over time, and every indication was that these groups mixed and mingled and there was no way to say that this group or that were the exclusive residents of any one pueblo. John was convinced that pueblo populations were always mixed throughout time as they are today.

What we saw on the ground was an indication of the complexity of the site. There were hundreds -- thousands -- of pottery sherds, many of them highly and finely made and decorated. Other household objects had been retrieved from the trash middens and from the nearby room blocks, one of which was our next destination.

Climbing a low mound, we looked down into a squarish pit. "What do you suppose this is," asked John. Some of us said a kiva. Nope, wrong answer. No, this was one of the excavations made at the site by Nels Nelson in 1914, the only real archaeological excavation that had ever been done there.

Nelson excavated approximately twenty rooms and a few kivas at Pueblo Shé, ran a trench through a trash midden, collected lots of things and shipped them off to AMNH New York where they still are, stored in boxes out of sight, and that was that. He went on to his next excavation and recovery site in the Galisteo Basin and eventually went far beyond. Nelson is credited with refining if not originating stratigraphic excavation and interpretation of archaeological sites, techniques he practiced at Pueblo Shé and elsewhere in the region.

Nelson determined that there were more than 1500 rooms on the ground floor of this pueblo complex. There are 7 main buildings at Pueblo Shé arranged in rows facing south. Several have wings facing east/west. There is also a detached section that we would visit. It appears to have been started but never completed. It's as if the footings or foundation had been laid but no superstructure had been built.

Like most of the rest of the pueblos in the Galisteo Basin, Pueblo Shé had been built of puddled adobe interspersed with local stone. The adobe had melted away while the stone had tumbled to the ground. Nothing was left of the pueblo but scattered squarish stones and low mounds. But the shape and extent of the buildings was easy enough to trace on the ground. Each mound was several hundred feet long, forty or fifty feet wide, and most buildings had probably not been more than two stories high. One building, which we would explore late in the tour, had left a taller mound, quite steep to climb, a mound that John W. said indicated at least three storeys and possibly more.

Some of us noticed right away that there were no vigas in the ruins, nor any sign that there ever had been any. Vigas are cross beams, usually ponderosa pine in Northern New Mexico, that are used as roofing beams and floor beams of multi-storey buildings. Their apparent absence at Pueblo Shé was interesting to some of us. Had there never been any? If not, how were the buildings roofed? If so, then where did they come from and what had become of them? Toward the end of the tour, John W. suggested the vigas would have to have come from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains some distance away and they might have been taken and recycled at other pueblos after Pueblo Shé was abandoned, as was the rule for valuable and not easily replace lumber not only prior to the arrival of the Spanish but since then too.

After checking out several of the building mounds and some Spanish era foundations that John W. said was likely a colonial era house (and someone on the tour suggested might have been a chapel), we headed off to a hill overlooking the ruins.

The approach was not particularly steep, but once we got near the top, the climb became rocky and precipitous. We were expected to 'summit' -- and it was clear there was no way I would be able to do so. John warned the group "You may have to do some scrambling" and most were able to make the steep and slippery climb to the top, though one lost her shoe, and several slid down before they figured out a way up.

I stayed behind with Paul D. who was kind enough to share pictures he'd taken at the top on Friday. There were petroglyphs. Not a lot of them. Two large ones only. He asked me what I thought one of them was. I said it was an antelope. He said that's what he thought too, but he was told it was a macaw or a parrot, very exotic birds in this area, as they could only have come from Mexico or Central America. Images of macaws are not rare in New Mexico, however, regardless of how rare the birds may or may not have been.

The other petroglyph I thought was a turtle or tortoise. Paul D. said it wasn't clear to him what it was. I've since done some research and realized that what I thought might be a tortoise was probably a representation of a pueblo resident protected by a large oval shield. These representations are found in many locations in the Galisteo Basin. On our way to the base of the summit, we'd both noticed a large flat-faced boulder on which was carefully pecked the letter "A".

 It wasn't too long before the group that had clamored up the sheer rock face to the top of the hill started picking their way down on a less steep path and we headed off to the next destination.

Little did we know what a challenge it would be. Remember, this was a group of mostly elderly people, spry though most might have been. John W. (no spring chicken himself) wanted to show us something he thought was vitally important. And getting there would take some doing, specifically climbing down into and then up the other side of a deep and steep-sided arroyo. OK, then.

This after traversing a fairly gentle slope to get to the arroyo, but it was quite a distance, so most of us arrived at the arroyo somewhat tuckered out. Then we had to pick our way down to the bottom and find a way up the other side. John said there were some gentler slopes but we didn't find any.

I managed it well enough, though slowly, but when I got up the other side I realized I was definitely breathing hard and would have to recover. Climbing more or less straight up is not the easiest thing for this overweight old man with a chronic condition.

We had to hike another few hundred feet to get to our destination, but this part was downhill, so it wasn't a great problem. And once we got there, what we found was astonishing. Another deep and steep arroyo, but this one had been dammed by residents of Pueblo Shé sometime before its abandonment, and the remnants of the dam were very impressive indeed. The water had breeched the dam at some point, so there were impressive remnants on both sides of the arroyo. The entire construction was perhaps 800 to 1000 feet long at the top and 50 to 60 feet high, much larger than any of the pueblo residential blocks, and obviously a significant community effort. When it was operational, the dam had impounded a rather large though temporary lake perhaps a square mile in surface area, enough water if carefully conserved for a large agricultural effort on the plain just below.

There you had the source of Pueblo Shé's significant size and population. If, as probably happened, the irrigation lake dried up for more than a couple of seasons, however, and the rains failed, as often happens in New Mexico, the people would face existential difficulty. They could live off their stores for  a time, but then... a choice would have to be made. Do they stay and hope for rain or do they go? Apparently they chose to go, but where they went isn't certain, no more than there is certainty about who once lived there.

I was quite moved by the sight of this massive construction. Some of our group went down into the arroyo that cut through the dam, but not me, even though the slope was gentler than the earlier arroyo. I stood and stared and caught my breath and thought about the people who had done this work and how they had done it and why, and I thought a little bit about when, too. 700, perhaps 800 years ago or even more. From the remnants, it looked like the dam was classically engineered, very wide at the base, narrow at the top. It was built of packed earth and stone, one layer at a time, heavy and sturdy, and yet the central portion had been breeched -- I think probably undermined rather than overtopped, but it could have been both -- and once breeched, it was not reconstructed, probably because the residents had departed and soon would meet with an unpleasant future at the hands and blades and diseases of the Spanish.

The dam was the highlight of this adventure to me.

Heading to our next destination, a shrine atop a promontory, we had to cross the deep and steep arroyo and then climb to the top of the promontory along a gently sloping but quite long uphill path.

Uh. No. This was more than I could handle after climbing up the arroyo a second time. I got maybe a third of the way to the shrine before I had to stop. I told Ms Ché to go on without me. I would sit on the rock outcrop over there until I could catch my breath, and then I'd rejoin her and the group at the top. OK?

She nodded and went on, meeting Paul D. on the way. She told him where I was, and he came and sat with me until I was able to get going again. We talked of many things including the weather, and after about 15 minutes of sitting, I was ready to try to 'summit' the promontory -- and sure enough, I made it.

The group was hearing about the nature of these shrines, circular or sometimes horseshoe shaped rock enclosures, smaller than kivas and probably open to the sky. They are found throughout Pueblo territory on high points used to watch for Plains invaders, Comanche and Kiowa, and maybe for Apache and Navajo raiders, too.

The shrines were used for ceremony and to place tokens to honor the natural forces ('gods') that protected the people. Some of these shrines are still in use and are very important in Pueblo culture. This one probably continued in use after the pueblo was abandoned because the site provided an ideal lookout and early warning of the arrival of Plains Indians -- whether for trade or raid.

I was half-listening to John W's presentation while exploring the site -- without entering the shrine itself. I spotted a rock on which a star or sun symbol had been etched and another on which there might have been the rendering of a crescent moon. The rocks around the shrine were jumbled but they may once have been carefully arranged and set. I saw vertical slabs from below, but did not see them from the top of the promontory. John said those vertical slabs were found at many shrine sites, and here they were still in place and better preserved than at most sites. The actual use and meaning of the site, however, still escaped the scholars. Something spiritual and ceremonial went on here, but just what was a mystery.

Well, certainly. 

John W. insisted that from this point on, the trail would be "easy" and downhill. No, really! Actually, it wasn't. Not really. It was mostly downhill, yes, but because there wasn't really a trail -- the site was so rarely open to the public or scholars -- one made ones way as best one could through scrub and cholla, across a rocky and snake holed landscape, dodging the odd cow-pie and still climbing the ruins from time to time.

In fact, we would climb the highest and steepest ruin when we got back down to the pueblo midst from the promontory. John W. said that from the height of the ruins, it was calculated that this building had been at least three storeys high and perhaps more. It overlooked a large plaza around which there were other buildings arranged in a square-ish plan (right angles were not strictly adhered to). Near the center of the plaza was a round kiva that appeared to be quite small given the size of the pueblo itself. John told us of another double kiva not far away which we would shortly visit. But those kivas, too, were on the small side. This suggested to me that large gatherings in kiva-space were not the rule, unlike the case at Chaco, for example, where some of the kivas are enormous, and more like the case of modern pueblo kivas used for gathering and ceremony by a few select residents rather than a significant portion of the population. The large plazas and stepped buildings around them were/are used by the people as a whole.

And about those buildings... Nelson said he surmised more than 1,500 "rooms" on the ground floor of the pueblo's buildings. I say "rooms" with air-quotes because for many years, I've suspected the ground floor wasn't arranged as rooms in the current sense at all. We had begun our adventure at Pueblo Shé exploring an uncompleted building, only the footings/foundations built, not the superstructure. Not even the completed ground floor was there. But the ground plan was relatively distinct, and John W had explained its "ladder" construction. Long walls were built -- in this case footings -- and cross walls were then added between them. This was common throughout the pueblo world.

The resulting ground floor "rooms" however are tiny. While they varied in size somewhat, the typical dimensions were about 3'x6', the size of a Japanese tatami mat, and far too small to be called a "room". However, since these spaces were often used for storage, accessible from above, they've long been characterized as rooms. But to my way of looking at it, these "rooms" served as the foundation of the building's actual rooms above. The upper rooms varied in size as well, but they were almost all larger than a tatami mat.

The room blocks at Pueblo Shé were each four or five "rooms" wide by several hundred feet long -- up to five hundred feet long or more. The main blocks faced south while wings extended to the north from the north side of some blocks. Some blocks were F, L or H shaped, some were T shaped and some were long I-s.

The uncompleted structure was slightly off the east-west alignment of the main blocks. But its alignment mirrored that of the V block on Nelson's map of the site. The V block was also the tallest of the structures. It's possible the new block was intended to be several storeys high like the V block.

While other pueblos in the Galisteo Basin were similar to Pueblo Shé with long narrow room blocks arranged to face south with wings extending from the north side and several central plazas with kivas, these pueblo configurations are quite different than those commonly attributed to the Anasazi from whom the pueblo peoples of New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Arizona are presumed to be descended.

John W. said that the arrangement and construction style of Pueblo Shé itself was an indication of both a hierarchical and matriarchal social system, The room blocks are standardized and rigid. One is significantly higher than the others and would have loomed over the largest plaza. Someone ordered and designed the buildings, and that someone was most likely one or more elite males who probably also organized and supervised construction. Construction went on for as much as three hundred years, so several generations participated in the repetition of what were traditional building design and construction techniques. The rigidity and linear arrangement of the room blocks might indicate a male hierarchy was in charge of construction, but that could be countered by the fact that in contemporary pueblo society, women build and own the houses; men help with some of the heavier work -- like transporting and raising vigas (which are not found at Pueblo Shé, though they may have been recycled to other pueblos) but house building is traditionally women's work, as is agriculture.

In other words, regardless of the hierarchy, the society of Pueblo Shé -- and presumably all the other pueblos in the area -- was matriarchal.

What intrigued me was the extreme length of the room blocks. While they were probably only one or two rooms deep on the residential floors, they were hundreds of feet long, evoking some contemporary motel designs (particularly from the 1950s and 60s.) If reconstructed, these buildings might easily resemble some of the "pueblo style" motels that can still be found along Route 66 in New Mexico. I wondered what the projecting north wings were, as the south-facing room blocks made sense given how cold winters could be in the Galisteo Basin. Rooms on the north side, even though they faced east and west, would tend to be freezing indeed in the winter, and they would not warm up as fast in the summer. Maybe that was the point... Maybe they were cold rooms for storage of perishable provisions...

Under floor storage was also cooler.

After the room blocks, kivas and trash middens, we visited a square enclosure next to a no longer flowing spring. John W. said that the nature of the enclosure and when it was built was unknown. It could have been Spanish or pre-Spanish. Its location next to the spring and its size evoked a corral, which would suggest a Spanish origin. Pueblo peoples had domestic dogs and turkeys, but they wouldn't have been corralled like horses. While the spring no longer flowed, the lush greenery at the site indicated that there was still plenty of water underground. It seemed possible that the enclosure was intended as a reservoir, then. But who knew?

A pottery expert then explained how the site's many thousands of pottery sherds helped to date the construction and the abandonment of the pueblo, as well as helping to determine the trade routes of the region. Most of the pottery was not made on site. It came from all over the region; some from quite a distance (Southern Arizona, Utah, etc.) Some was highly and finely decorated while much was simple and utilitarian. Dates based on pottery styles were relatively well understood, and so Pueblo Shé's construction and occupation could be reliably dated between the 1300s (some occupation might be earlier) and late 1400s -- as late as 1500 -- and its subsequent abandonment could be determined fairly accurately as well. Pottery wasn't the only indicator, but it was a major one.

After three hours exploring the site, we were released for catered lunch under the tent near where we parked. Lunch was good and we conversed with some of the others who'd been on the adventure. We learned from one couple that we shared many experiences at Chaco Canyon.

This particular adventure was remarkable for its rarity. So few people had explored Pueblo Shé, and very little excavation had been done there. Unlike the famous ruins at Chaco Canyon, this was a nearly pristine site, with no reconstruction at all, and in some ways, it was clearly a more spiritual site.

Obviously, it's had quite an effect on me as I work through the many experiences and memories I have of being there. Archeology has been an interest of mine since I was very young following my discovery of Indian relics on my elementary schoolyard and the brief archaeological dig that followed. A Gabrieleno Indian village was determined to have been on the site of our schoolyard until sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century.

Shrine at Pueblo Shé looking toward Cerro Pelon on a cloudy day in June 2019
Click to enlarge
Some additional information about Pueblo Shé and the other pueblos in the Galisteo Basin


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